Van Halen dominated the hard rock seen throughout the 1970s and 1980s and lead guitarist Eddie Van Halen was at the top of his game through it all with his trusty Frankenstrat in tow. Eddie’s fully customized guitar quickly became as iconic as the guitarist himself and has been an integral part of the band’s image and sound from the very beginning. While many have tried to copy the guitar and guitarist, all have failed to be as legendary as Eddie Van Halen and Frankenstrat.
In started in 1978 Eddie Van Halen sought to create a guitar that completely suited his needs. Using a $50 Strat replacement body and an $80 Strat replacement neck from a Boogie Bodies guitar shop Eddie began to breathe life into one of rock history’s most iconic guitars. The neck was birdseye maple with a maple fingerboard, and a CBS style Fender Strat headstock. Because the body couldn’t accommodate a Gibson PAF pickup, Eddie modified it carving deep into the body’s wood. The disfigured wood was covered up with a black pick guard and then the guitar body was painted black, wrapped in masking tape and repainted white to create wild lines. The classic black and white stripes on the guitar can be seen on the cover of the band’s first self-titled album.
Frankenstrat became an ongoing project for Eddie. In 1979 he added red paint to the body to discourage copycats from recreating his guitar. Eddie met Floyd Rose in 1980, who designed a new bridge that would enable Eddie to do his favorite deep dive whammy’s without putting the guitar out of tune. The full sized pick guard was also replaced with a vinyl record piece covered in aluminum foil. It was later replaced with a proper pick guard in 1981. That same year the a quarter was introduced to compensate for a gap between the body and the bridge. In 1982 the guitar reached its final image, the one we’ve all seen. The Floyd Rose bridge was replaced by a newer model, and while the quarter was no longer needed, Eddie van Halen decided to leave it where it was.
Eddie Van Halen was born on January 26, 1955 in Nijmegan, the Netherlands but immigrated to the United States in 1962.The family arrived in New York by boat with nothing but a few suitcases, a piano, and the equivalent of $15 in their pockets. The boat fare was paid in part through musical performances on board to entertain the other passengers. Once in America the family traveled to California by train ending their journey in Pasadena.
Eddie Van Halen and his brother, Alex, were raised in music. Their father, Jan Van Halen was an accomplished musician playing the sax, piano and clarinet. Both brothers were trained to play classical piano although they eventually were drawn to guitars and drums in their teenage years. The brothers began to play parties through the Los Angeles area and when they met David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony their first band, Mammoth, was born in 1974.
Eddie quickly began to develop a reputation as a strong guitarist. Although tapping was not new, Eddie had developed his own style that was so interesting many musicians tried to copy it. In order to protect their sound brother Alex, and lead singer David suggested that Eddie not perform his guitar tricks live until an album has been released. “Yeah, that is kinda like Alex telling me, ‘Hey, wait until we have it on a record; their gonna rip it…Ya know, when I started doing the two-handed technique, as soon as the record came out, everyone did it.”
The band got their first big break in 1977. Discovered by KISS bassist Gene Simmons who personally funded the band’s first recording session, the group later signed with Warner Brothers in 1978. The self-titled album released featuring the hit single “Runnin’ with the Devil.”
Although Van Halen has had its shares of ups and downs, break ups, and reunions Van Halen continued to be a success. In October 2012, 500,000 readers of Guitar World Magazine voted Eddie Van Halen as the “Greatest Guitarist of All.”
The original Frankenstrat is still under Eddie Van Halen’s care although he recently loaned it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for their “Play it Loud” Instruments of Rock and Roll exhibition in April 2019. A replica of the guitar is also on display at the National Museum of American History, a Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.
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